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Ugh, let’s talk about dress codes. They’re the worst, am I right? Nothing sucks the fun out of getting ready to attend a wedding quicker than some obscure dress code printed on the invitation. No matter how many events we attend, it seems like we’re always second guessing what the terms “semi-formal,” “business casual” and “cocktail attire” really mean. And while we usually subscribe to the rule that it’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed, it’s also super uncomfortable showing up somewhere in a gown when everyone else is wearing jeans and a tee. So, we did a little hard research.
While whoever came up with the term “dressy casual” should totally be fired—Hello, aren’t those two opposing terms?—there are actually specific expectations behind some of the most confusing dress code suggestions. Because it’s already hard enough to shop for the perfect ensemble as it is when you do understand the attire suggestions, we went ahead and decoded some of the most common dress codes for you. Whether your new job suggests that employees dress in business casual attire, or you receive a wedding invitation that says “black tie optional,” we’ve got you covered.
Picking out an outfit should be fun, not stressful.
Dress Code: Black Tie
This is crystal clear for men—wear a tuxedo. It’s a little more complicated for women, who can technically wear anything from a long dress to dressy separates to a formal cocktail dress. The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for black tie, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with a statement jewelry.
Foolproof Outfit: A long gown or a black tuxedo
Dress Code: Black Tie Optional
One of the murkier dress codes, men are given the option of either wearing a tuxedo or a dark suit and a tie. Because men are given the option of dressing in a more casual manner, the dress code is more open for women too, who can wear anything from a long dress to a cocktail number. Think of it like this: You aren’t expected to look as if you’re en route the Oscars, but you should still make an effort with formal attire.
Foolproof Outfit: An ankle-grazing dress and statement jewelry or a black suit with a bow tie
Dress Code: Creative Black Tie
“Creative black tie” is the dress code that allows you to have fun. Men, for instance, should feel free to wear a black shirt or a red bow tie—something other than the cookie-cutter penguin suit. Women are similarly encouraged to take their look less seriously. Still confused? Think of creative black tie as trendy black tie. Oftentimes, creative black tie is the expectation at theme parties with a dress code like “1920s Black Tie” or “Texas Black Tie”, and in those cases, choose a dressy look that works with the theme. For instance, with a dress code that calls for Texas Black Tie, a man would be dressed appropriately in a tuxedo, bolo tie, and cowboy boots, and a woman could wear a gown and a cowboy hat.
Foolproof Outfit: A formal-but-trendy gown for or a tuxedo with a black shirt
Dress Code: Cocktail
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, cocktail attire typically means short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Foolproof Outfit: An LBD or suit and tie.
Dress Code: Festive
A dress code that tends to pop up on invitations around the holidays, festive attire is similar to cocktail attire, but with a holiday bent—say a sparkly sequin dress or a red satin skirt.
Foolproof Outfit: A sequin party dress or a suit and holiday-themed tie
Dress Code: Business Formal
The dress code suggestion at many daytime semi-formal events (particularly work lunches and conferences), this dress code calls for a suit and tie for the guys and a tailored dress or a pantsuit for women. The idea is to wear something business appropriate that also feels dressed-up.
Foolproof Outfit: A pantsuit for women and a suit and tie for men.
Dress Code: Business Casual
Most corporate offices have a dress code that calls for business casual. For women, pants and a blazer, or a pencil skirt and a fun blouse is the way to go. Guys can wears slacks or chinos and a collared shirt. Absolutely no jeans or sneakers.
Foolproof Outfit: Black trousers and a tweed blazer or khaki pants and a collared shirt (tucked in)
Dress Code: Casual Dressy
This dress code calls for a just slightly dressier version of your most casual look. For women, dress up your go-to pair of pants with a fun pair of ankle boots, add heels to elevate flared jeans, or pair a jumpsuit with a collared shirt. For guys, dress up your favorite pair of jeans with a blazer and you’ll be good to go.
Foolproof Outfit: Black pants, a blouse, and ankle boots or and jeans and a sport coat
Dress Code: Casual
Anything goes in this case, including jeans and sneakers, and a casual dress code usually means you’ll be uncomfortable in anything too dressy.
Foolproof Outfit: Jeans and sneakers
A version of this article was originally published in 2014.